November 28, 2020

Regarding Rachana, the font

Regarding Rachana, the font
Clarifying SMC's 15+ years of work in Rachana's 20 years of existence in the context of sustained misinformation.
Further development of Rachana, Meera, Keraleeyam, Uroob and Meera Inimai fonts are on hold until the issues resolves amicably

Swathanthra Malayalam Computing is a community organization that has been around since 2002, contributing to Malayalam language and its journey into the digital age through fonts and tools. We have spoken up on matters relating to freedom of speech and expression and FOSS, on matters relating to the standardization of language representation and on occasions when we felt that our support to other organizations would uphold FOSS and Freedom of expression. We are a collective of people who like technology and language, and we put in hours and hard earned money for this cause. Some of us grew with SMC and have remained with it, some have grown in life and moved on to other ventures – but none of us have ever let SMC falter from its ideals. People have come and gone, but their earnest efforts have remained.

Lately, we have had to speak up to defend ourselves against sustained mudslinging and misinformation campaigns. A recent attempt to somehow sideline and belittle what SMC as an organization has achieved, has once again forced our hands to write this defence and spell out what we have done in the last 15 years, from our reactivation in 2006. .

What is prompting SMC to write this, now ?

Rachana Institute of typography, has announced a newly designed Rachana variant called "RIT- Rachana". Normally this is an occasion for celebration, since Rachana is one of the first complete Unicode fonts Malayalam has seen, and it embodies the work of many people, reminding generations that we are committed to our mother tongue. Like most things in 2020, this wasn't a normal occasion though. This release was accompanied by a document titled "Genesis and Rationale". This document is a clear attempt at rewriting the history of Rachana with misinformation.

Who are we to Rachana ?

We did not start this journey alone. We are a collective upholding the values of Free and Open Source Software and our commitment to the language comes from many sources including the original makers of Rachana, the "Rachana Aksharavedi".  

A small bit of History

In 2003 December Anivar, who later became part of the team reactivating SMC met K H Hussain during Kerala Social Forum in Thrissur, and discussed the possibility of releasing glyphs in 6 ASCII fonts of Rachana as free software and future collaboration for language computing. The rationale for this was that the  goals of Rachana Akshara Vedi as a civil society that reclaimed the spirit of traditional of scripts would be better aligned with free software movement and its values of freedom to study, copy, modify and redistribute. These discussions resulted eventually led to the releasing Rachana by Richard Stallman on his visit to Cochin University of Science and Technology, at a talk organized by Anivar and friends in free software user group – CUSAT and Free Software User Group Kochi. Subsequently, efforts for Rachana's Open Type version were started by Ramakrishnan Muthukrishnan, which was later taken over by Rajeev J Sebastian.

In 2004, the unicode version of Rachana was released by Rachana Aksharavedi with contributions from members of Free Software User Groups engaged in Malayalam Language computing.  Rachana Akshara Vedi, with the leadership of Chitrajakumar and technical leadership of Rajeev J Sebastian later developed a KDE based Rachana OS as a product, and organized a release announcement function in VJT Hall in Thiruvananathapuram in Feb 16, 2006. But sadly, the source code for this product was never released, and the need of reinventing the fix was a priority for the community. SMC was reactivated in 2006 September on a software freedom day to address the immediate requirement of Malayalam support in Debian based IT@school GNU/Linux. Praveen A, Anivar Aravind, Hiran Venugopalan, Baiju M, P Suresh (Suruma) and K H Hussain lead this merging of multiple Malayalam computing groups under a single umbrella and the working solution was ready by December 2006. The golden age of Malayalam computing started after this point in time.

The Continuity

In the years since, there has been bug fixes, additions in the font to make sure that the users of the font – the people of Kerala – are not inconvenienced. We did not just host the font files – that is easily done. What we did was a lot more than that. Rachana's Unicode version was brought together properly, fixed to work on all platforms and made available to public.

We re-engineered the technology used to produce Rachana so that the commendable work done by Rachana Aksharavedi survived, and was used to produce other fonts like Manjari. We did not keep it to ourselves either – we remained true to our commitment to FOSS, releasing all of this work under Free and Open Source Software licenses. We hoped that others would make use of this technology stack. Newer fonts maintained by SMC are built on this stack.

All of this effort from SMC's contributors over the years meant that Rachana survived, the work done by Rachana Aksharavedi survived – and became the progenitor of many others of its ilk. Along the way, SMC also maintained fonts built by others, but focused on making newer fonts utilizing the engineering stack that we had built up. We made sure that Malayalam fonts were packaged and available in popular FOSS distributions. We spoke about them whenever we could. Our members furthered the research, looking into things such as what makes Malayalam fonts look good, from a mathematical perspective. We documented the principles and technology behind the font creation and spent countless hours on the internet helping people to use these fonts and troubleshoot issues. Meera, Keraleeyam, Uroob, Rachana Bold fonts were also engineered, maintained, packaged, distributed by SMC. All of these were designed by Mr Hussain K H and the engineering efforts were put in by SMC volunteers. SMC raised funding for designing few of these fonts from government sources and supported the designers with it. In short the ecosystem was developing. The community haven't sought anything in return – other than following FOSS license terms where applicable.

The Success

Rachana Aksharavedi's goals survived and were achieved through the work of people in SMC. This happened in 2018. It was a poignant moment marked by V R Prabodhachandran Nair, a vehement opponent of Rachana's original goals, releasing "Gayathri", a Traditional script font built on SMC's current engineering stack, developed with financial support of Kerala Bhasha Institute. The act vindicated the convictions of Rachana Aksharavedi, of all those people who came together in 1999 out of love for Malayalam and firm idea of language script as a community owned resource and we, SMC held out through the years to make sure it happened.

This, is what we did. We walked with Rachana Aksharavedi and Rachana Unicode from its early years, stuck with it and fulfilled the vision of its creators. As far as Rachana, the font is concerned, we tended to it for over 15 years through during its 20 years of life.

In 2019, 20th year of Rachana Akshara Vedi's formation and Rachana's initial release, Anivar suggested redrawing and rebuilding of Rachana font glyphs, in a way it suits modern computing systems. We are happy that RIT is taking up this technical task, but unhappy with the way of removing SMC with misinformation spreading on historical Genesis.

What do we get for this work ?

We get people thanking us from time to time. We did not ask for it, but it motivates us nevertheless. But today, we face people belittling the work we did over years, implying that we somehow turned Rachana from a thing of purity into a bug riddled implementation, questioning our commitment.

Today, we face people making baseless allegations such as "the maintainers of Rachana began to release and maintain fonts of reformed script that clearly deviated from our commitment to the traditional script upheld by Rachana Aksharavedi" and "the substitutions are often made following reformed (new) script, i.e., with detached ‘uu’-kar."

These claims do not deserve defense – they are outright lies specifically targeted at painting SMC in a bad light. This is not the first time they have made such baseless allegations either. The people who make these claims do not recognize that the history of Rachana Aksharavedi and SMC are not separate, that it is a continuum, that former served as one of the inspirations for the latter. Summarizing what we did in two words is not just an injustice to all the volunteers who contributed time, but also a slap in the face to Rachana's history.

We think they are trying to rewrite history and deride not just the decade plus work that SMC did, but also the commitment to traditional script that Rachana Aksharavedi upheld. A cursory glance at the newly released RIT-Rachana reveals that the font does not follow the traditional script as comprehensively as it claims in all popular rendering engines, even while claiming that Rachana that we maintained over the years do not commit to traditional scripts.

We see font engineering primarily as an engineering task, geared towards making tools that makes font creation easier. As far as we are concerned, a font is not the canonical document that says what should be and what shouldn't be – it is not a textbook. Fonts files are not academic references. We understand that this is in conflict with Mr K H Hussain's vision, and this is something that can be discussed and resolved. Instead we saw Mr K H Hussain levelling a flurry of needless, unfair and often blatantly false accusations at the font maintainers. Any attempts in initiating any discussion with him to resolve this conflict has been consistently met with indifference, apathy, and further attempts at vilification of the maintainers.

Where do we go from here ?

The end result of this one sided blame game has forced us to put the development of Rachana, Meera, Keraleeyam, Uroob and Meera Inimai on hold, until this conflict can be resolved in a just and kind manner. Any bug fixes will be made as far possible. These fonts currently do not derive the full benefits of our engineering stack, and they won't be ported into the new stack. If there are volunteers to take up maintenance for these fonts in accordance with their designer's view and his manner of working, we are happy to help out in any way we can and transition the development to them. For users of this fonts, we will continue providing downloads of last releases.

SMC will work with any organization that upholds its values and is ready to contribute in a fruitful manner, with mutual respect. We wish to point out very clearly that if RIT had actually wished to fix bugs in Rachana, all they had to do was either submit patches or better, take over Rachana's maintenance officially as we had invited them to do, in a manner that does not affect the user base. We also wish to point out that this option has always existed, and will always exist, regardless of the people in SMC – like Rachana Aksharavedi, SMC is more than just individuals. We are a collective, and we will not falter in the face of misinformation like this.